Oil Rig Count Slips, Hedge Funds Maintain Long Positions

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In the week ended January 13, 2017, the number of rigs drilling for oil in the United States totaled 522, down by seven compared with the prior week and up seven compared with a total of 515 a year ago. Including 136 other rigs drilling for natural gas and one rig listed as “miscellaneous,” there are a total of 659 working rigs in the country, down by six week over week and up by nine from a year ago. The data come from the latest Baker Hughes North American Rotary Rig Count released on Friday.

After nearly four months of consecutive weekly gains, the number of rigs fell last week, partly the result of freezing weather across much of the country, including Texas.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil for February delivery traded down about 1.3% on Friday to settle at $52.37. Crude prices decreased by about 3% week over week. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported last Wednesday that crude supplies had increased by 4.1 million barrels in the week ended January 6, and that gasoline supplies had jumped by 5 million barrels.

Last Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a notice of sale for 8 million barrels of crude oil currently held in the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Bids are due on January 17 and deliveries will commence on March 1.

The sale is being held to help pay for maintenance to the salt caverns that are used to store the SPR. As of January 6, the SPR held 695.1 million barrels of crude, equal to 149 days of import supplies. As a member of the OECD, the United States has committed to maintaining a strategic reserve equal to 90 days of import quantities. The average price paid per SPR barrel is $29.70.

The sale notice specifically requires that the buyer use a Jones Act vessel to transport the crude if any is purchased to be shipped to a U.S. destination. The 1920 law requires that shipping between U.S. coastal cities be done on vessels built in the United States and carrying a U.S. flag, unless the purchaser is granted a waiver of the requirement.

The minimum size of a purchase that will be transported a Jones Act vessel is 290,000 barrels. When the Energy Department held a similar sale in 2011, the minimum purchase was 500,000 barrels. Only a handful of Jones Act tankers have such a capacity, so a virtual blanket waiver was issued.

No such blanket waiver is included this time around, but individual waiver requests based on non-availability of a Jones Act vessel will be considered.

Whether the sale will put any downward pressure on crude prices remains to be seen, but a one-off sale of a relatively small amount is unlikely to move prices much or more than temporarily.

The natural gas rig count increased by one to a total of 136. The count for natural gas rigs is now up by one year over year. Natural gas for February delivery closed the week at $3.42 per million BTUs, up 16 cents on the near-month contract compared with the prior week.

Hedge funds — under the Managed Money heading in the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC’s) weekly Commitments of Traders report — dropped 5,006 short futures and options contracts for WTI crude oil last week and also dropped 3,566 long contracts. The movement reflects changes as of the January 10 settlement date. Managed money now holds 357,251 long positions compared with 51,342 short positions. Open interest totaled 2,868,908. There were 47 hedge funds with large short positions last week, up one from the prior week.

At the end of December, hedge funds had built a massive long position in crude oil contracts. There are few shorts remaining to be squeezed out, and if a correction comes, it is likely to be to the downside.

Among the producers themselves, short positions outnumber longs 675,968 to 419,173. The number of short positions rose by 23,958 contracts last week, and longs added 25,026 contracts. Positions among swaps dealers show 381,465 short contracts versus 119,276 long positions. Swaps dealers dropped 4,556 contracts from their short positions last week and added 2,483 contracts to their long positions.

U.S. refineries ran at 93.6% of capacity, a week-over-week increase of about 418,000 barrels a day. Imports rose by about 1.9 million barrels a day, to about 9.1 million barrels a day in the week.

Among the states, Wyoming added two rigs last week and Louisiana added one rig. Texas and Oklahoma each lost two rigs and four states — Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania — each lost one rig.

In the Permian Basin of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, the rig count now stands at 268, up one compared with the previous week’s count. The Eagle Ford Basin in south Texas has 47 rigs in operation, unchanged week over week, and the Williston Basin (Bakken) in North Dakota and Montana now has 32 working rigs, down one for the week.

Enterprise Products Partners lists a January 14 posted price of $48.82 per barrel for WTI and $50.27 a barrel for Eagle Ford crude. The price for WTI and Eagle Ford crudes fell by $1.62 a barrel in the week.

The pump price of regular gasoline fell by two cents a gallon week over week. Saturday morning’s average price in the United States was $2.347 a gallon, compared with $2.367 a week ago. The year-ago price was $1.937 a gallon.